• October 23, 2014

U.S. Agency Will Offer $100-Million to Universities to Study Development Issues

As part of an effort to reinvigorate its work with higher education, the U.S. Agency for International Development is starting a new $100-million program to study foreign aid and generate solutions to problems facing the developing world, like lack of adequate food resources, government corruption, and environmental degradation.

The goal is to get the world's poor on the research agenda of the nation's top universities. The agency wants the money, which will be doled out over five years, to forge multidisciplinary partnerships between universities with different areas of expertise, say, in water conservation and disease control, or broader coalitions that could include companies, nonprofits, and foreign higher-education institutions. Alexander Dehgan, the agency's science and technology adviser, says the new program seeks to tap into the existing intellectual strengths on American campuses to answer broad questions. "How can universities work with AID to help us actually do a better job of understanding what are the problems out there?" he asks. "What is the evidence behind those different challenges? And how do we actually understand what future trends are?"

The grant program, which USAID will officially request proposals for later this month, represents a renewed emphasis by the agency to work with universities. While higher-education institutions are involved in a variety of agency projects, like providing assistance to universities in Africa and conducting agriculture research, the ties are not as strong as they were in the 1970s and 80s.

The new program is "an embracing of American higher education after about two and a half decades of basically letting that relationship languish," says Tully Cornick, executive director of Higher Education for Development, which supports American universities to implement development projects overseas.

Ambitious Plans

In addition to the new grant program, USAID has taken other recent steps to foster higher-education research. In July the agency and the National Science Foundation said they would jointly support research partnerships between scientists in the United States and in developing countries. Mr. Dehgan says the agency is interested in forming similar programs with other federal science agencies, like the National Institutes of Health.

Mr. Dehgan, an evolutionary biologist who previously worked in Iraq redirecting that country's weapons scientists toward civilian research, oversees a 22-person science and technology office, the first such office to exist in almost 20 years at the agency. With an increasingly interconnected world and complex global problems that resist being easily defined, he says, the agency needs a better understanding of what works in international aid.

For example, there is a growing push to provide environmentally friendly and energy-efficient stoves to families in developing countries, which could curb greenhouse-gas emissions and health problems like emphysema. However, Mr. Dehgan points out that such a strategy needs to consider how different regions of the world use cooking equipment. In Mongolia, he says, the stoves help heat homes, so a highly efficient device may not be the best approach.

Indeed, Mr. Dehgan sees universities as "development laboratories," creating new technologies and encouraging students and faculty members to work on such developing-world issues. The $100-million in grants, he says, could lay the groundwork for a Silicon Valley-like environment, where instead of technology start-ups, students are encouraged to create new companies and charities to help people in places like Nigeria or Bolivia.

But the key to the program's success is how well universities can break down the walls between disciplines. "What we need is the climate scientist, the biologist, the agricultural specialist, the engineer, the economist, the anthropologist, the political scientist all talking to each other on a problem-focused approach," Mr. Dehgan says.

Potentially, he would like students not to ask each other, What's your major?, but instead ask, What's the real-world problem you're trying to solve?

M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities who led USAID for most of the 1980s, applauds the new program and says the interdisciplinary approach will require universities to operate differently.

"They're going to have to realign some of their efforts to be able to take full advantage of these opportunities," he says.

Universities may also be surprised that the grants are relatively small compared with the agency's ambitious plans, says Richard Bissell, executive director of the policy and global affairs division at the National Academy of Sciences. "For a lot of them, it's going to be a sticker-shock issue," he says.

Despite this, Mr. Bissell says the agency is on the right track by pushing universities to find other financial backers and partners as part of the grant competition.

Mr. Dehgan says the program is meant to challenge universities to shake them out of their usual practices and that its parameters are somewhat vague. By not being too prescriptive with what type of projects it will support, the agency wanted to generate a discussion with higher-education officials.

"People are having a hard time trying to deal with it," he says. "The universities are like, so do you want us to focus on global hunger? Do you want us to focus on Somalia? And we're like, we want you to look at the resources, the attributes, and strengths of your university, and come up with the most creative and best ideas that can help global development and help this agency."

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